Rural Scholars identify food needs on-Island

Team of UMass graduate students look at vulnerable populations and how to provide support.

Food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard has risen dramatically in the past two years, and the Rural Scholars presentation provides valuable information to food service organizations on-Island to address this major issue.

Six scholars from the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst medical school gave a presentation on how to improve food access for underserved populations on Martha’s Vineyard.

As part of the Rural Scholars program, the five medical students and one graduate nursing student dove into three Island demographics that need better and more consistent access to nutritious foods.

Every year for the past 15 years, the Rural Scholars from UMass, sponsored by the Rural Scholars Committee of the Dukes County Health Council, delve into issues on-Island such as substance abuse, sexual health issues, and senior health care.

Based on data collected by Feeding America, a major hunger relief organization, and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard in 2018 was at 7.3 percent. In 2020, those numbers were projected to sit at 12.3 percent. 

The three demographics, the Brazilian population, elders, and the chronically or acutely ill, are all identified as being the most susceptible to food insecurity, especially during the pandemic.

The scholars conducted 50 interviews of more than 70 different people, including food professionals, housing organization members, medical professionals, and elder care specialists.

For the Brazilian population on-Island, the scholars pointed out that one major issue is the number of Brazilian people here has historically been largely under-reported, based on data gathered from the school system, as well as anecdotal evidence.

Along with a lack of robust population estimates, the scholars identified barriers for Brazilians to acquiring healthy foods on a consistent basis.

According to the study conducted by the group, 50 percent of the Brazilian population on-Island is undocumented, which leads to fear and anxiety when it comes to self-advocacy.

Many Brazilian people on-Island do not speak English, or speak limited English, which leads to major communication barriers. Alternatively, there are few native English speakers here who speak fluent Portugeuse. 

Financial issues relating to low-wage jobs and a lack of adequate transportation are also contributing factors identified by the scholars.

Based on this knowledge, it was determined that access to low-cost foods in the winter and prepared foods in the summer would benefit the Brazilian population, along with incorporating nutrition education into adult learning programs on-Island.

Another population that is susceptible to food insecurity is Island elders, and with the number of people above the age of 65 projected to rise over the next decade, resources for those Islanders will become increasingly essential.

The scholars first focused on information gleaned from surveys of elder service organizations, and noted that the stigma of receiving support, along with substance abuse and mental disabilities, were central barriers for elders.

Among the number of possible solutions suggested by the scholars, increasing prepared food options, utilizing psychiatric professionals to address mental health needs, and medically tailored meals were identified as essential next steps to curbing food insecurity among elders.

Overall, the scholars linked food insecurity in elders directly to lack of affordable housing and a minimal availability of caretakers for homebound elders, and suggested more public outreach to reduce the stigma of receiving food support. 

The third population identified by the scholars was the chronically and acutely ill on-Island.

Because of COVID, the group stated that the landscape of care has been drastically altered.

One issue mentioned in the presentation was the necessary connections that need to be made between food service organizations, like those in the Island Food Equity Network, and the touchpoint institutions, like the hospital, that have direct contact with individuals who are ill.

In order to provide food to ill people on-Island, the scholars suggested a more collaborative effort between neighbors, community farms, kitchens, and healthcare organizations to identify those who need support, and get them the food they need.

Community food education director at the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) Noli Taylor said the scholars didn’t even have two weeks to conduct their clerkship and synthesize their findings, but they did an “incredible job” at identifying the key issues surrounding food access.

“I was so impressed to see how much information they had gathered in such a short time, and the quality and depth of the recommendations they came up with at the end of their research period,” Taylor said.

Taylor said there were many elements of the presentation that will prove invaluable to the Food Equity Network and the many food service organizations on-Island like IGI.

“They gleaned a lot of anecdotal information about housing shortages from people who are experiencing those issues, and people who are trying to help. That relates directly to food security needs,” Taylor said.

For elders, Taylor said, the scholars highlighted the lack of affordable housing, but also the lack of elder caretakers who can assist in getting people the resources they need.

Because of the strong food support network here on Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor said she is confident that she and the many dedicated food professionals will be able to take the recommendations of the scholars and put them into action in the very near future.

For the groups who worked with the Brazilian population, Taylor said, they suggested having video blasts or more media attention paid to expanding outreach, so that Brazilians here know where they can access food.

“By sending out videos through WhatsApp and Brazukada (a Brazilian social media platform) we can get that information out to those areas of the population that might otherwise be hard to reach,” Taylor said.

And for the Brazilian adult learners who are taking English courses or other adult programs, Taylor said, incorporating healthy eating reading materials and other educational resources could prove to be valuable in providing a better understanding of nutrition. 

At the hospital, Taylor said, it would behoove the entire Island to have a more comprehensive and consistent food security screening process for those who are admitted. “The scholars recommended more consistent screening at the hospital on electronic medical records, so if people screen positive for food insecurity when they go to the hospital and fill out the iPad questionnaire, they get flagged, and that information can be used by support organizations,” Taylor said. “Everyone is connected to the healthcare system, so it’s a powerful way to reach people.”

Tied in with the hospital, Taylor said, one suggestion of the scholars — medically tailored meals — would be a great resource for people who have health conditions or are ill.

She said in the longer term, having a satellite food storage area at the hospital to have emergency meals available for patients would be beneficial.